Metallica is nominated for Best Metal Performance for the title track of St. Anger.
Metallica – the most successful musical metallurgists of all time with over 90 million albums sold in a 20-year career – are back after an eventful six year absence from recording, still very angry, even naming their raging ’03 album, St. Anger. But while the band, especially lead singer/songwriter James Hetfield who went through rehab for substance abuse in late 1991, may have not yet made peace with personal demons, they have fully embraced one former nemesis, the Internet.
Having sued Napster just three years ago, Metallica is now offering free, unrestricted MP3 downloads of three full concerts worth of songs and other goodies from a new website to fans who buy St Anger, which also includes a free DVD of the band performing the album live in rehearsal – in all, over seven hours of delightfully nasty, aggressive music for the price of a single CD.
Powered by the Internet, another rock cornerstone Pearl Jam left the major label solar system to pursue a brave new world of its own. Metallica has chosen a tighter orbit, staying with their longtime label Elektra, betting they can entice fans to buy their music by adding – make that heaping – extra value into the traditional CD package.
Though early in the mission, the Metallica plan appears to be working with a vengeance. In its first week of release St Anger, the band’s first new studio album since 1997’s Reload, was the number one album in the U.S. and nine other countries when it wa released last June. Over a million bonus MP3’s have been downloaded from the new “Metallica Vaults” site by eager fans who have purchased the album and obtained an access code, according to Edward Bender, spokesman for Speakeasy http://www.speakeasy.net/, the independent broadband provider that implemented and is hosting the site. Bender said he has the ideal job, since he “saved up lawn mower money as a kid to buy Metallica albums” and has been a huge fan ever since.
Perhaps Metallica and its vicious old-school audio assault can lead the record industry back to a consumer-friendly future with bonus packages and authorized downloads of such quality and value that unauthorized file sharing becomes immaterial, or at least reduced to a tolerably dull roar.
Not long ago this scenario would have seemed impossible. In 2000 Metallica sued the Napster file sharing service for copyright infringement and delivered to the now-defunct company the names of over 300,000 users – “fans” by another name – whom they accused of illegally making Metallica songs available over the network. Napster banned the fans from its service but told them they had a right to appeal the ban under federal law. 30,000 did appeal and the band either had to sue each one of them individually or throw in the towel.
Facing an absolute public relations debacle, a band that slogged its way to superstardom the blue-collar way with very little radio or MTV support through relentless touring, classic songs of sonic spite like “Creeping Death” and “One,” and an flannel populist persona, relented and withdrew the suit.
In July of 2000, the band’s drummer, Danish-born Lars Ulrich, appeared before Congress to testify against the menace of unauthorized file sharing, saying, “It’s clear, then, that if music is free for downloading, the music industry is not viable; all the jobs … will be lost and the diverse voices of the artists will disappear.” Now the Metallica Vaults site exhorts fans to “Download, Burn, Share, Kick Ass.”
To be fair, this isn’t quite the contradiction it appears to be – Ulrich also said, “I don’t have a problem with any artist voluntarily distributing his or her songs through any means the artist elects — at no cost to the consumer, if that’s what the artist wants. But just like a carpenter who crafts a table gets to decide whether to keep it, sell it or give it away, shouldn’t we have the same options?”
Well, perhaps, except there is a fundamental difference between a physical table, which can only be in one place at a time, and the bits and bytes of an MP3 file, which is infinitely reproducible without diminishing the original. But without delving too deeply into one of the hottest policy debates of the new millennium, clearly Metallica did compromise on their earlier insistence on control over all their material.
Now fans who possess an access code from the insert to the St. Anger CD package can download high quality MP3s of live Metallica recordings and do whatever they want with them: burn them to CD, share them over the networks like Kazaa, and in general, “kick ass” in an unrestricted manner. The band’s organization now realizes that those same MP3s floating around the sharing services may very well drive album sales – that’s a great conceptual leap the rest of the industry needs to make to take full advantage of the Internet.
“Our dream is to make this site the yellow pages of Metallica,” said former Epic Records VP and Hollywood Records president Bob Pfeifer, the band’s liaison between creative vision and technological realization. “We’d like it to be a highly organized, high-quality listing of everything. I’d like this to be the temple of Metallica.”
Pfeifer, who was about to catch a flight to Paris to join the band on the European leg of their “Summer Sanitarium” tour when I talked to him by phone in June, also wrote the concept and design documents for the band’s forthcoming video game, due in 2005, which he described as “Road Warrior meets Metallica.” A thunderous trailer for the “landmark, high-action vehicle combat game” (you were expecting pretty ponies?), which will also feature original Metallica music, is available for download from the site.
While some great lumbering beasts may be set in their ways, Metallica surely is not, remaining nimble enough to rethink their Internet position, reconnect with their fans, and retool their sound by incorporating old school speed metal into an audacious new garage band rawness. If the industry as a whole can do some similar rethinking, perhaps predictions of its imminent demise may prove greatly exaggerated.